Bastille day…The story behind the celebration

It was on the southern edge of the arrondissement, in the wretched Faubourg St-Antoine that rumbling discontent was first channeled into working-class consciousness and into organized action against exploitation. When word was spread on April 28, 1789 that Monsieur Réveillon, a painted-paper manufacturer on rue de Montreuil, was planning to reduce his workers’ wages, the Faubourg St-Antoine rose up in a violent insurrection. Monsieur Réveillon had not anticipated such a reaction, for the lowering of wages he had intended was proportionate to the drop in the price of bread fixed by the authorities to ease social tension. His 400 workers had a different idea of fairness and Réveillon, terrified, ran for his life and sought shelter in the neighboring Bastille, the ominous fortress looming west of the faubourg. It took the intervention of troops and a death toll of 30 to put down the revolt, but any wise ruler should have sensed that further trouble was brewing …

Today it’s hard to picture the formidable, eight-towered fortress of the Bastille that was built here in the 14th century to fend off an English assault from the east. The corner café, with its clinical-looking-designer furniture and succulent pastry display in its window, is hardly suggestive of the medieval gate that stood here, complete with a moat, drawbridge and crenellated walls. The pink cobbles on the ground outline the exact location of the Bastille, but nobody pays much attention to them. If anything, it is the golden statue of the Spirit (“Génie”) of Liberty on top of the Bastille column that catches the eye as it glitters in the sun, bringing to mind the heroic destruction of this symbol of oppression. By the time it was stormed, however, the Bastille had long ceased to conform to its image of merciless brutality. In fact, in the 17th century and especially in the 18th it had become a sort of luxury prison, often used for members of the aristocracy.

Within reasonable limits the prisoners could maintain their previous lifestyle, bringing over their own furniture and servants, entertaining visitors and even keeping amorous rendezvous. Voltaire used his time to complete his play “Oedipe”; the Marquis de Sade draped his cell walls and brought over his own wine from Provence; the Cardinal de Rohan once hosted a lavish dinner party for 20 guests.
Although this lifestyle was financed by the prisoners’ families, the upkeep of the Bastille was a costly business, owing to the high fees paid to its highly qualified staff of doctors, priests, chemists and surgeons, not  to mention the highly paid governor. When Voltaire was released in 1717, the Regent granted him a pension of a thousand crowns; Voltaire thanked him graciously, with particular reference to the food received at His Highness’ expense, but suggested that in the future he need not trouble to provide him with lodgings!

In order to cut down on state expenditure the Minister of Finance, Necker, had shut down the prison of Vincennes in 1784 and was planning likewise to demolish the Bastille. A square named Place Louis XVI was to replace it, but one battered tower of the fortress of the prison was to be preserved as historical testimony. A statue of Louis XVI stretching out a liberating hand in the direction of the demolished jail was to surmount a pyramid made up of chains, bars and locks retrieved from the Bastille. But the patriotic sans-culottes got there first.

Their heroic assault against tyranny and the deliverance of the victims of oppression turned out to be much less glorious than the uplifting myth history has since created, for all they found in the Bastille were seven prisoners: four forgers, one accomplice to an attempted murder, who had been locked up in the Bastille for over 30 years, and a count who had committed incest and was sent there at the request of the family, whom the liberating forces transferred to the celebrated asylum of Charenton.

An eighth prisoner had been sent to Charenton 10 days earlier – the notorious Marquis de Sade, who had been transferred there from Vincennes when it was demolished in 1784. He too had been arrested at the request of his family, anxious to remove a cumbersome relative whose sexual perversion was not limited to the written word. It was in Vincennes that he wrote “Justine” and “Gomorra.” In June 1789, the governor stopped the prisoners’ daily walks on the tower because of the growing unrest in the neighborhood. This enraged the Marquis, who made himself a sort of megaphone and yelled through it that the prisoners were being slaughtered inside. On July 3, 1789, he created such a commotion that he had to be removed from the sight of the restless crowds and at 1am he was transferred to the prison section of Charenton. When that prison was closed down in 1803, he was locked up in the asylum for “licentious dementia.”

Although the heroic storming of the Bastille boiled down in effect to nothing more than the liberation of the seven prisoners still detained there, the demolition of that formidable fortress was another story.
A wily charlatan called Palloy took charge of this arduous task, awarding himself the title of démolisseur de la Bastille for the occasion. Disposing of the stones of the fortress proved even more arduous. Some were used to build the Concorde bridge, but what about the many others?

Palloy came up with the idea of chiseling miniature model Bastilles out of them, which he sold as souvenirs, not unlike the little Eiffel Towers we can see today. In January 1790, 93 miniatures were offered as gifts to the newly created departments (districts) of France, securing for Palloy a substantial profit. The July Monarchy erected the Column of the Bastille. This was surmounted by the gilded sculpture of the Génie de la Bastille, which represents Liberty breaking off its shackles and spreading light all around. Funeral vaults were built into foundations, destined to hold the remains of the 504 identified victims of the insurrection.

In March 1848, 196 new victims of the 1848 February Revolution were brought here for burial. On July 24 the triumphant people of Paris paraded the throne of Louis-Philippe through the boulevard on its way to the Bastille Column where they burnt it, thus doing away with royalty once and for all.

This article is adapted from Tirza Vallois’ book, “Around and About Paris – from the Guillotine to the Bastille Opera, the 8th-12th arrondissements.” Two other books spotlight the 1st-7th and 13th-20th arrondissements. All are available at most Paris bookshops specializing in English-language publications or from the author: